BWW Preview: Mazzoli-Vavrek WAVES Gets Second Break, at New York's Prototype Festival in January

BWW Preview: Mazzoli-Vavrek WAVES Gets Second Break, at New York's Prototype Festival in January
Center: Kiera Duffy as Bess. Photo: Dominic
M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia

For a new opera to have its second major showing less than four months after its premiere is unheard of--but then BREAKING THE WAVES, based on the Lars Von Trier film of the same name, isn't just any opera. This triumph by composer Missy Mazzoli, librettist Royce Vavrek, and direction by James Darrah--with a star-making turn by soprano Kiera Duffy in the central role of Bess--debuted at Opera Philadelphia on September 22, 2016. It is having its New York premiere on January 6-9, 2017, over the first weekend of the Prototype Festival at NYU's Skirball Center. (The Festival runs from January 5-15, 2017, starting with the World Premiere of MATA HARI by composer Matt Marks and librettist/director Paul Peers on the 5th, at HERE's Mainstage, 145 6th Ave, New York, NY.)

BREAKING THE WAVES was co-commissioned by Beth Morrisson Projects, which also happens to be one of the producers of Prototype (full name: Prototype: Opera/Theatre/Now) with HERE. The third presenter in New York is Trinity Church Wall Street, whose music director, Julian Wachner, is conducting the performances, with the church's choir along with NOVUS NY. (As composer and conductor, Wachner also has his own piece on the Prototype schedule, REV. 23, a work in progress billed as "the hitherto unpublished last chapter of the Book of Revelation as dictated by St. John the Divine and transcribed by Cerise Lim Jacobs," at National Sawdust on January 14.)

Of the other major characters in the Philadelphia production, baritone John Moore is back in the crucial role of Jan, Bess' husband, whose accident sets the drama in motion, and mezzo Eve Gigliotti returns as Bess' sister-in-law, Dodo McNeill.

The opera's creative team, including the composer, librettist, director, some of the singers and the original conductor, Steven Osgood, gathered together back in September at the Guggenheim Museum's Works & Process series to talk about the development of the work. Here are some excerpts from the piece I wrote then.

Quick: What film won the Golden Globe for Best Movie in 1997? It was THE ENGLISH PATIENT. But more important for composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek, the question is "What film didn'twin the Golden Globe in 1997?" The answer (for them, at least) is Lars von Trier's BREAKING THE WAVES, which they've transformed into an opera of the same name, co-commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and Beth Morrison Projects.

It's the story of Bess, living on the Isle of Skye (off Scotland's west coast) in the '70s, who meets Jan, a Norwegian oil rigger working nearby and marries him. Much of the opera takes place in the aftermath of an accident on the rig that renders him paralyzed, after he suggests she satisfy her sexual needs with other men. (Needless to say, there's a caveat that "the production includes nudity, sexual content, and explicit language.")

I promise not to give away any major secrets--though if you saw the von Trier film, you know it doesn't end happily for the heroine--except that the opera should foster much wider appreciation for the music of Mazzoli and help people "discover" Kiera Duffy's soaring soprano. It's a dark film--and the perfect source for an opera, says the composer. "Each of the characters is infinitely deep and incredibly complicated and I feel that opera's superpower is creating a subtext and saying two things at once."

Here are a few things you should know about this new, unconventional--and exciting--opera, taken from the "Works and Process" discussion.

This was not Mazzoli and Vavrek's first time working together. It is a follow-up to SONGS FROM THE UPROAR, a 75-minute chamber opera based on the life of Swiss explorer Isabelle Eberhardt, which premiered in 2012 at The Kitchen in New York City.

Librettist Vavrek became obsessed with the film version as a teenager. Vavrek is the "poster boy" for contemporary opera librettos--he has already had a major success this year with JFK, which premiered in Dallas, with a score by David T. Little (also his composer on the acclaimed DOG DAYS). He had the task of paring down a two-hour movie to give the opera the bones on which the music would have room to get into the heads of the characters. "This is my favorite film of all time. I found it--or it found me--when I was 14 years old," says Vavrek. Growing up on a farm in northern Alberta, Canada, he first became aware of it watching a film clip at the Golden Globe Awards on television and, he says, "It changed my life." It was his idea to turn it into an opera, as a follow-up to his work with Mazzoli on UPROAR.

Composer Mazzoli didn't think it was a good idea--at first. Mazzoli loved the film so much that she thought it was a terrible idea to make it into an opera. "The idea blew my mind," she says. "Why adapt something that was already amazing?" But she couldn't get the idea out of her head: "It resonated with me and I could hear the music from the characters."

She worked two Scottish musical traditions into the piece: First, traditional Gaelic songs of the Highlands, "the way that members of a church sing a melody that they all know but don't line up together, and you get this wash of sound." Second, the sound of bagpipes. "In researching this project I found that I love bagpipes, which worked itself into the piece but not in an overt way; there are no bagpipes in it, but there's this dense harmonic language that comes out of listening to them."

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.